Beka Cooper: Terrier, by Tamora Pierce (Random House, 2006)

[image_name]Nearly two centuries before Alanna the Lioness broke all the rules to become a lady knight and a legend, the land of Tortall looked to different heroes to keep them safe. Heroes such as Beka Cooper, of the Provost’s Guard. But before she became a hero, Beka started out, quite simply, as a Puppy, an inexperienced trainee partnered to two of the senior Guards, more commonly known as Dogs.

As a Puppy, Beka is expected to keep her mouth shut and her eyes open, learning everything she can from the highly-respected team of Goodwin and Tunstall, who are among the very best Guards in service, especially in the dangerous Lower City. It’s not an easy duty; half the Puppies who train in the Lower City die or quit within four months. But for Beka, the Lower City is home, where she was born and bred, and where she’s most comfortable, and now it’s the place to which she’ll bring justice. If she survives. Luckily, she’s got some excellent friends on her side, including a mysterious cat of possibly-divine origins, and a few magical gifts up her sleeve. Beka can hear the voices of the dead, as carried by the omnipresent pigeons of the city… and right now, the voices are whispering tales of murder.

The most hectic, exciting, and dangerous time of Beka’s young life is about to begin. On the one hand, someone is secretly hiring people for a covert project, and killing them for their silence. On the other, a person known only as the Shadow Snake is kidnapping children and holding them ransom for what little valuables can be found in the Lower City. As Beka and her mentors attempt to unravel these two very nasty plots, they’ll challenge the most powerful people in the underworld, and risk death on a daily basis. But will they be in time to solve the mysteries, or will more people die?

Terrier is the first part of a new trilogy that explores the land of Tortall, a century and a half before the Lioness quartet which originally introduced it. But instead of courtly intrigue and knightly challenges, this time we get to explore the setting from a street-level perspective, as the relatively new organization of the Provost’s Guard (the Dogs) continues to puzzle out its role in society. This is a time when justice is fast and loose, crime is rampant, and in many ways it’s every man for itself. And therein lies the fascinating sliding scale of morality that runs through the thread of the story. A heavy portion of the Dogs’ pay comes in the form of bribes, and it’s considered perfectly natural to accept a little extra now and again to look the other way, especially if the crime doesn’t warrant the effort of arrest and trial. And not only that, but there’s a certain acceptance that the Rogue, king of the thieves, will police his own people (in turn paying bribes to the Dogs to keep a certain peace going). In this way, the story reminds me much of Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher series, which also has to do with some (mostly) honest guards in a city riddled with crime, both mundane and magical. It’s easy to believe in the setting, which is presented in an honestly down-and-dirty fashion without wading too deep in the muck.

Confession time. Even though I’m literally twice Beka’s age, the teenage part of me (that same part which has in the past fallen for Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, Talia of the Queen’s Own, and a certain Alanna) is totally crushing on her. What’s not to like? Beka Cooper is strong, fast, fierce, loyal, good-hearted, and intelligent. She’s the sort of heroine you definitely want watching your back when things get messy, and she strikes me as a good friend in general. Best of all, she doesn’t fear, distrust, or bemoan her magical gifts like many of her literary peers seem to; she’s embraced her abilities and uses them to her best advantage. Make no bones about it, this is the sort of person who grows up to become a legend. Her one real character flaw — her self-proclaimed shyness and inability to speak in front of crowds and strangers — is present without being crippling or overly annoying. It’s refreshing to run into a teenage protagonist who doesn’t wallow in adolescent angst or throw temper tantrums, no matter how rough the going gets. If it wasn’t for her youthful idealism, energy, inexperience, and occasional lapse of judgment (Fishpuppy is a nickname that dogs her steps for quite some time), it’d be easy to think she grew up too fast. As it is, I eagerly anticipate the continuation of her story, and I hope the process doesn’t break her too badly. Beka’s already tied Aly from Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen as my favorite Tamora Pierce heroine.

Finally, no discussion of this book would be complete without mentioning the absolutely exquisite cover art by Jonathan Barkat. He captures Beka with such precision that I could just picture her leaping off the cover and into action. While I’ve seen a lot of really good covers, this is one of those rare few that truly impresses me. All in all, Terrier may be one of the must-read fantasies of the season.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

Crossroads and Other Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey (DAW, 2005)

[image_name]For the most part, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar universe has been a single-author playground, semi-sanctioned fanfic notwithstanding. However, every now and again, Lackey officially allows others to play in her sandbox. This is the third such collection, and once again she has put together a quality band of authors, both familiar faces and newcomers to the setting. For those who might need a refresher course, Valdemar is one of Lackey’s signature settings, a land guarded by the white clad psychically-Gifted Heralds and their magical, telepathic all-white horses known as Companions. It’s not easy being a Herald, as dozens of books and stories have covered, and here, sixteen authors, plus Lackey herself, return to Valdemar.

Larry Dixon leads off with “Transmutation,” in which a gravely-wounded gryphon discovers his ultimate potential and destiny. Richard Lee Byers explores death and treachery in the city of Mornedealth, in “Death in Keenspur House.” Brenda Cooper’s “Dawn of Sorrows” looks at a young Bard whose life has been recently touched with tragedy. Rosemary Edghill’s “Horse of Air” follows a Herald who, after his Companion was killed, took up the life of an undercover tinker.

In Tanya Huff’s “All the Ages of Man,” a Herald who feels saddled with too much responsibility at an early age must learn to distinguish between duty, discretion, and desire. Michael Longcor looks at the life of a young soldier in “War Cry,” while Michael Z. Williamson studies the ethics of a mercenary troupe called upon to do horrible things against their better judgment in “Naught But Duty.” And Mercedes Lackey gives us an untold tale of fan-favorite characters Tarma and Kethry in “Landscape of the Imagination,” where an escort duty turns out to be a far stranger journey than they ever expected.

You can look at Crossroads in one of two different ways: as a sampler of the many different facets of the Valdemar universe, or as a gift of love to its fans. Either way, you end up with a satisfying collection of stories that revisit the various corners of a rich and intriguing world. With nearly twenty years of details to draw upon, there’s a lot to work with, and these authors certainly do a good job. I’m pretty sure that even a newcomer would find something to entertain them, but if all else fails, I recommend reading Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen for a proper introduction. In general, this is a great collection, if somewhat specialized in scope.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

Time After Time, edited by Denise Little (DAW, 2005)

[image_name]Here we come to one of my favorite anthology themes: time travel. Sixteen authors tackle the ever-fascinating world of temporal cause and effect, in which their assorted protagonists attempt to change their pasts and futures for better and for worse.

Dean Wesley Smith’s “The Ghost of the Garden Lounge,” is an especially strong tale. In it, he revisits a bar whose jukebox occasionally allows people to travel into their own past. In this case, a couple separated by time and tragedy attempt to fix their past repeatedly, their failure growing more profound every time. Also memorable is Daniel Hoyt’s “God’s PDA,” in which a man finds an item capable of rewriting history, or preventing Armageddon. But can he use it responsibly?

Jody Lynn Nye’s “Wait Until Next Year” also looks at Armageddon as a preventable event, but how on Earth does it all relate to the World Series, angels, demons, and a mortal pawn? Loren Coleman looks at a time traveler sent on a specific mission into the past, who falls in love with his current situation, in “Present Perfect.” Brenda Cooper’s “Black Armbands” has a remorseful hero try to change a horrible incident in his own past, but at what cost to history?

Christina York’s “Godspeed” has John Glenn making a choice concerning his own destiny, while in Annie Reed’s “Reboot,” a time traveler discovers a sinister secret about the program where he has worked for many years. In “Jesus H. Christ,” Laura Resnick takes an irreverent look at how an ex-Mafioso convinces the Son of God to follow His destiny.

This is a good, solid collection that really takes full advantage of the titular theme to explore the possibilities. With stories ranging from humorous to tragic, action-packed to thoughtful, there’s plenty for everyone. I might be biased because I’m a sucker for a good time travel tale, but I was quite pleased with this anthology.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

All Hell Breaking Loose, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, 2005)

[image_name]In this collection, sixteen authors tackle all things Hell-related and demonic, with stories that purport to tell it like it really is Down Below. From the humorous to the horrific, they’ll give you a little taste of Hell to savor for your very own.

In Bradley Sinor’s “That’s What They All Say,” a private investigator used to handling the unusual is tapped to deliver the ransom for a kidnapped Lucifer, but will he be tempted to welsh on the deal when he hears what is at stake? In Sarah Hoyt’s “Something Worse Hereafter,” a pair of lovers fight daily against a host of hungry demons, preferring the Hell they know to the worse one rumored to exist if they fail. Adam Stemple takes a look at the traditional deal with the Devil, when a home remodeling crew breaks down the wrong wall in “Burning Down The House.”

Daniel M. Hoyt’s “Devil in the Details” shows that even the Big Bad can be thwarted by bureaucracy and red tape, while Donald J. Bingle uses the fine print to capture the souls of the unwary in “Hell To Pay.” P.N. Elrod speculates on the nature of a convention for demons, featuring her magical cat-man Myhr in “The Name of the Game.”

Those are just some of the cautionary tales to be found in this volume, with other authors including Alexander Potter, Ed Gorman, Dean Wesley Smith, David Niall Wilson, Alan Lickiss, and David Bischoff. It’s a fun bunch of stories, with a little something for everyone, and worth checking out.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2006

The Clone Alliance, by Steven L. Kent (Ace, 2007)

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In the far future, war has broken out across the arms of the Milky Way Galaxy, as the Unified Authority fights against the secessionist Confederate Arms Treaty Organization and the fanatically religious Morgan Atkins Believers (or Mogats). Caught in the middle of this galaxy-wide conflict is former UA soldier and occasional war hero, Waylon Harris, the only Liberator-series clone known to still be alive. Waylon, fully aware of his clone status unlike the millions of other clones populating the UA armies, has, over the course of his adventures, become a rebel and a wild card. When he and his sometime partner, the mercenary Ray Freeman, got stranded on a distant planet, it looked like that was the end of the war for them both. That wasn’t to be the case for long.

Following a suicidal attempt to return to civilization at all costs, Harris and Freeman are once again drawn into the thick of things, used as a go-between for the various warring factions, which ultimately sends Harris right into the very heart of the Mogat empire. There, on an inhospitable planet, surrounded by millions of the enemy, he discovers their closely-held secrets. Little does he realize he’ll soon participate in a massive military attack upon the Mogats, a campaign which will once again test his morals and resolve. For Waylon Harris, it’s never dull.

The third book in the series, The Clone Alliance once again offers up stunning battle sequences, intriguing moral quandaries, and plenty of unexpected revelations. We see some pretty major developments in this book, especially related to the secret of the Mogats and their technology, and the religious/moral growth of Waylon Harris. I’ve enjoyed this series so far, as Steven L. Kent has gotten a lot of good mileage out of the concepts of breeding clones to find a war (a plot which admittedly has some passing familiarity to the Star Wars prequels) and brainwashing/programming soldiers to fulfill certain goals. (In an intriguing twist, normal clone soldiers are programmed to think of themselves as human, and to see themselves as having blue eyes and blond hair, as opposed to the brown eyes and brown hair every clone really possesses. In short, it’s an army of clones, each of whom thinks he’s the only human in a sea of clones… and furthermore, if they realize the truth, they die on the spot. Which makes Harris’ self-awareness all the more unique.) Kent has also done quite nicely in giving his characters personal quirks, from the clone soldier who’s developed a prankster personality, to Harris’ growing religiousness.

It’s a far-flung plot, taking place in various parts of the galaxy, but it holds together pretty well, save for a few coincidences that can be passed off as characters being both luckier, and smarter, than one might expect. But then again, where Harris is concerned, it seems as though nothing’s entirely impossible, and people have learned to take that into account. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s a nice, fast-paced military SF book with plenty of well-scripted action and adventure to satisfy the discerning reader, with a sympathetic narrator and a good build-up towards the end. I’ll be looking forward to the next in the series. Newcomers will want to start with The Clone Republic and Rogue Clone.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007

The Aftermath, by Ben Bova (Tor, 2007)

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In the depths of the Asteroid Belt, many years from now, the aftermath of a short but brutal war for the resources of the asteroids leaves a number of lingering repercussions. One family is torn apart by an unprovoked attack, while an entire space habitat is destroyed, its inhabitants slaughtered. The perpetrator, soon afterwards, undergoes traumatic changes and sets out on a new path, one of attempted redemption. The existence of a mysterious alien artifact, meanwhile, prompts one of the most powerful men in the solar system to hire a team of assassins to wipe out any witnesses to his moment of weakness. And all of these threads will cross and affect one another over the next few years.

If that opening paragraph sounds awkward, it’s only because there’s some significant backstory leading up to the events in The Aftermath, billed as Book Four of the Asteroid Wars sequence, which itself fits into Ben Bova’s much larger Grand Tour sequence (16 books and counting). The casual reader doesn’t have to have read the others in order to appreciate that at one point, there was a series of struggles for control of the resources to be found in the Asteroid Belt; in fact, Bova does an excellent job of summing up the salient points early on, but there’s still a lot of subtext that factors into how characters relate to one another, and their motivations.

The Aftermath follows a diverse ensemble of characters. Aboard the crippled ship Syracuse, you have Theo, Pauline and Angie Zacharias, three members of a family, desperately trying to survive long enough to get their ship repaired and redirected towards some semblance of civilization. The remaining member of the family, Victor, is rescued, and spends the rest of the book trying to return to his family to save them as well. Aboard the Hunter, there’s the elderly, famous sculptor Elverda Apacheta and the war criminal-turned-cyborg priest, Dorn, who have embarked on a mission to grant peace to those slain in the Asteroid Wars. Meanwhile, the Viking plays home to Kao Yuan and Tamara Vishinsky, part of a team assigned to hunt and kill Dorn and his companion. Finally, the salvage ship Vogeltod is full of ruthless men willing to prey upon any ship they can encounter and overpower. All of these people, with their various goals and destinations, tie into the overall storyline, that of one family trying to get home, and a man seeking redemption or death.

Though sounding complicated on paper, The Aftermath is rather well told, and easy to follow, despite the alternating viewpoints and shifting narratives. Taking place over millions of miles and several years, it’s an ambitious story in some ways, taking advantage of the sheer size of the solar system to grant room for the action. At the same time, it’s a tightly-told tale that relies heavily on characterization and human emotion. In fact, it’s a very “human” story, with down-to-Earth motivations and goals, despite the disconcerting presence of an alien artifact at the center of things. Dorn wants redemption, Elvedra accompanies him out of an adopted maternal instinct, Victor just wants to rescue his family, Tamara is motivated by greed, and so forth. Very simple, very basic, and very well done. Bova’s strengths are evident here: believable characters and an attention to the details of hard science without obsessing over the minute details. It’s a gripping story that keeps moving, with plenty of twists and turns (and a few convenient coincidences), and like most of Bova’s work, it doesn’t disappoint. If you’re interested in hard science fiction that focuses on the human condition, this is a worthy book to pick up. I always enjoy new installments in the Grand Tour, and The Aftermath is no exception.

Originally posted on SF Site, 2007